Meeting refugees from Burundi
I want to tell you about a forgotten crisis – the 325,993 people who have fled political instability in Burundi and in particular the 177,335 who have crossed into Tanzania. Of course, with Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, it is perhaps understandable that the world’s attention is elsewhere but that doesn’t mean we should forget Burundi.
“On Monday morning a gang of youths came to our house and attacked my parents,” says 22-year-old John (not his real name). “I was a little way from the house but heard my parents shouting. I think they are dead. I saw blood coming from the front door but didn’t go in – I just ran and hid and slept in bushes and walked until I got to Tanzania.”
It is Wednesday morning and just 48hrs after John’s parents were attacked I am talking to him at a refugee reception centre on the Tanzanian side of the border with Burundi.
Cecilia, a Plan International Tanzania staff member who is with me says to John: “You are safe now. And when you get to the main refugee camp you can talk to our social workers and get counselling.”
John replies: “I am happy to be safe. Thank you,” before sticking his hand out to shake mine.
John is surrounded by a dozen other young men, all with similar worried faces. We ask several why they have fled. The answers are the same:
They are all standing by a 30 metre long shelter made of wooden poles and covered in plastic sheeting carrying the logo of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. This is the first contact new refugees have with authorities having escaped Burundi. Today, 99 people have arrived at the centre. Based on recent trends, another 10,000 will cross the border by Christmas. UNHCR estimated 170,000 refugees would arrive in Tanzania in 2016. The actual figure will be close to 212,000.
There are also 82,936 in Rwanda, 29,975 in Uganda, 30,305 in DR Congo and 1,798 in Zambia.
They are fleeing Burundi mainly because of political instability, which began in April 2015 when President Nkurunziza announced he was changing the constitution so he could stand for a third term. Since then there have been consistent reports of harassment and violence. Food insecurity from drought is also a factor.
The new refugees at the Tanzanian border are soon transferred to buses that drive the 25 – 100km to one of the refugee camps established by the Tanzanian government and run by UNHCR and up to two dozen International and National Non-governmental Organisations (I/NGOs), including Plan International Tanzania.
One of the camps is Nduta, home to almost 80,000 refugees, though designed for 50,000. It is in remote western Tanzania; to get here I took a three hour flight from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika, then drove north on dirt roads for five hours.
On arrival, they go through a thorough registration process that includes collecting biometric, medical tests and for Plan International Tanzania the priority is to identify vulnerable children. This might be ones who have experienced violence or abuse, been married before the age of 18, or have a disability. Or those who have arrived in the camp unaccompanied or separated from their parents and families.
Each child will be carefully supported by a Plan International social worker, their needs assessed upfront and repeatedly in the months ahead. Where required, a foster family is quickly found (humbling to think refugee families struggling themselves are willing to take in additional children) and they will receive ongoing psycho-social support, for example counselling. Separated children are reunited with their families wherever possible with the support of Tanzanian Red Cross Society.
As of December 2, 2016, Plan International has helped 1,600 unaccompanied minors and 1,417 separated children in Nduta and Mtendeli, another camp.
Child friendly spaces
As part of Plan International Tanzania’s focus on vulnerable children, they have established several Child Friendly Spaces where children can go and play football or musical instruments or take after school classes.
They also hold group and individual counselling sessions for traumatised children.
Within three days most refugees are provided with a tent, food, basic ‘non-food items’ like buckets, plates and cutlery, and a small piece of land where they can grow vegetables (though they will remain largely reliant on food handouts from the World Food Programme).
A range of UN and INGOs provide camp services. The Danish Refugee Council is in charge of camp management, Oxfam the water supply. As part of Plan International Tanzania’s focus on vulnerable children, they have established several Child Friendly Spaces (CFS’s) where children can go and play football or musical instruments or do after school classes. They also hold group and individual counselling sessions for traumatised children. And, along with Community Child Protection Committees, who act as a focal point, they monitor and report child protection issues and create awareness about children welfare in the camp.
Plan International has also just opened up a youth centre, recognising there is little to do in the camps for 15 to 25 year-olds. The centre is a mix of fun – a volleyball court is the first thing inside the gate and music blares out – and skills courses. One room is full of sewing machines, another teaches bakery. This will allow young people to set up small businesses in the camp and have a profession when they are able to return to Burundi. Two apprenticeship bakers lead us to a tent containing a bread oven, ingredients and a tray full of finished loaves.
We also visit Plan International’s camp office where we meet about a dozen fostered children and their foster parents. Strikingly, the parents don’t see what they are doing as remarkable at all, while the children all have aspirations to be doctors, teachers or lawyers. “I know my rights have been abused…..so I want to learn law so I can fight back,” says one of them.
It is fabulous to see the support Plan International, other INGOs and UN organisations are providing.
But this remains a forgotten crisis. These organisations have a fraction of what they need to provide even basic needs. 420 classrooms are required; only 28 exist. There is one secondary school for an 80,000 population. It has no books, no windows, no doors. WFP got close to reducing food rations (already basic maize and beans) by 40% recently. There are huge gaps in funding for child protection.
We must do more to ensure this isn’t a forgotten crisis.
And because there is no political solution in sight, the violence across the border is expected to continue, leading to a predicted additional 130,000 refugee arrivals in Tanzania in 2017.
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